Although they don't yet have official standing as a nonprofit, seven Quaker churches separating from the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends have made significant strides in establishing their own regional denomination, which will be known as the Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.
In addition to choosing a name during the NWYM's annual summer meetings at George Fox University in July, the emerging organization selected leaders and formed committees to help guide the work of becoming an independent group before the NWYM's separation deadline of June 30, 2018.
Of the five people chosen to lead the group over the next year, three are from Newberg, including co-clerks Eric Muhr and Cherice Bock, as well as recording clerk Matt Staples, who is a senior at George Fox University. Filling the role of assistant clerk will be Jon Kershner of North Seattle Friends, with Roger Watson of Tigard Friends to serve as treasurer.
"We're building everything all at the same time as opposed to getting one thing done, then doing this, then that," Muhr said.
When the NWYM's administrative council announced in January that the denomination would split over differences concerning homosexuality, four member churches that had already voiced a preference to take a more inclusive and affirming approach toward LGBTQ people were given the option to become independent or establish a new yearly meeting.
Members from those four churches — West Hills Friends Church, Klamath Falls Friends Church, Eugene Friends Church and Camas Friends Church — as well as North Seattle Friends Church, which opted in later, volunteered to form an interim council to begin organizing the new entity and to set an agenda for the annual sessions.
Newberg Emerging Friends Church, the new congregation resulting from the split at Newberg Friends Church, and Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, have subsequently decided to leave the NWYM, bringing the total that intend to depart to seven. According to Muhr, members of both churches have contributed to the effort to form SCYM, but Newberg Emerging Friends has not yet signaled interest in joining. Reedwood, meanwhile, has decided to to become independent and has no current plans to approach any yearly meeting for membership, according to clerk Lloyd Pruitt.
Other congregations (or monthly meetings in Quaker parlance), including North Valley Friends where Bock attends, are still discerning whether to remain in NWYM, go independent or join Sierra-Cascades, while a small group in California has already expressed interest in aligning.
In fact, the Western Association of Religious Society of Friends (WARSF), which consists of three churches that left the Southwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, represents the Sierra portion of the new yearly meeting's name.
While much progress, including the establishment of a website, email newsletter, checking account, has been made in eight months, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting finds itself in an odd state of existence.
It will eventually become an independent yearly meeting, which will allow it to co-exist and maintain some financial relationships with the NWYM and other related entities; SCYM and its member churches are still technically part of the NWYM. The new group is not yet legally a nonprofit or religious organization, although one of the nine committees formed at the annual sessions is working to address incorporation with the state.
During the annual sessions, Sierra-Cascades approved a minute on inclusion and equity that addresses LGBTQ members, but in group discussions also addressed concerns that the organization would be inclusive in a broader sense and that its development won't be guided solely around the specific issue that caused the split in the NWYM.
"We'll be a Christ-centered group of Quakers moving forward together with the intention of including everybody in our ministry gifts and then going and doing the ministry activities that we felt led to as a group," Bock said.
Sierra-Cascades is also an amalgamation not only of congregations that intend to leave the NWYM, but also individuals from churches on both sides of the reorganization. Interestingly, both Bock and Muhr fall into that category, while Watson also serves as director of finance and development for NWYM.
As the former youth pastor at Newberg Friends and member of the administrative council, Muhr's connections in NWYM run deep, but he has been involved with the establishment of Sierra-Cascades from early on.
After stepping down as youth pastor in January, Muhr also resigned from the administrative council just a two days before it announced it had decided the NWYM will split. And while Muhr, who also runs Barclay Press, did not attend the retreat at which that decision was made, he said he does feel a level of complicity in it.
Concerned that four churches, which have expressed that the decision forced out them of the NWYM, would not survive amid the transition, Muhr worked informally as communications coordinator. Once the interim council was formed, that role became official and then he was nominated for clerk at the annual sessions.
"So I showed up thinking I was going to do anything it took in order to help insure the survival of these churches that were no longer a part of the Northwest Yearly Meeting."
Bock is a Newberg High School and George Fox graduate who went on to serve as a youth intern at Newberg Friends Church and a peace coordinator at the NWYM office before attending Princeton Theological Seminary from 2005 to 2009.
Since returning to Newberg, she has taught undergraduates and seminary students at George Fox and is currently pursuing a doctorate in environmental studies with a focus on eco-theology.
She almost didn't attend the annual sessions, but because she took issue with how the NWYM handled the split, felt called to participate, although she did not anticipate being selected to serve as co-clerk.
"For me, it was a sense of wanting to be part of forming what is going to emerge out of this," Bock said. "I haven't been as hurt by the process as some people, so I can be there emotionally. But I'm also connected to a lot of people who have been hurt through this process really badly, so I can try to create a space that is safer going into the future."
The Sierra-Cascades has already scheduled it's next large meeting for Oct. 7 at Eugene Friends Church, where many of the committees will report on their progress, with another meeting tentatively scheduled for January or February 2018.